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The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a lesson students sorely need

Our history books don’t do enough to teach us America's dark past of lynching at the hands of white terrorists

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

A sculpture by artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, part of the Nkyinkyim Installation, of enslaved people in chains is shown after entering The National Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 20, 2018 in Montgomery, Al.

A sculpture by artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, part of the Nkyinkyim Installation, of enslaved people in chains is shown after entering the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 20, 2018 in Montgomery, Al.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened late April in Montgomery, Alabama, to honor the thousands of people (mostly black) who were lynched by white American terrorists between 1877 and 1950. A field trip to this much-needed museum should be required for every middle and high school student in U.S. schools, lest we forget that terrorism has been a fixture in American democracy long before 9/11. Students should experience the symbolic representation of that history so they can understand how lynching has evolved in today’s context.

Merriam-Webster defines the word “lynch” as “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.” It is patently a form of terrorism meant to intimidate communities, enforce racist traditions and maintain racial hierarchies.

Black people may not hang from trees nowadays, but they are left for dead all the same by biased police and vigilantes like George Zimmerman posing as authority figures who will kill to keep black people in their place. And the impact on the victims’ community is not much different from a hanging. What’s past is present, to which people will inevitably say, “Get over it. Slavery was in the past.” They might add, “Why complain about the police when blacks are killing themselves in Chicago?” Some, like Chicago native and rapper Kanye West, will even go so far as to claim that “slavery sounds like a choice.”

To believe that racism is over — remember when Americans patted themselves on the back for entering a post-racial era for electing Barack Obama to the presidency? — is to ignore the significance and symbolism in President Trump’s campaign slogan. “Make America Great Again” sounds like code for impunity for (white) terrorists, especially to black and brown people, Muslims, immigrants and the LGBTQ community — in other words, anyone who is not white, not Christian or not straight. At a time when torch-toting neo-Nazis and Confederate sympathizers march openly on college campuses and a sitting president defames African nations as “shithole” countries, “a memorial is the kind of provocation that we need,” writes Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie, “a vital and powerful statement against our national tendency to willful amnesia.”

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It is the insufficient references to American terrorism, namely, lynching, in our students’ history books that make the Montgomery memorial such an important corrective.

The Alabama social studies curriculum, for instance, doesn’t really explain or even mention lynching. Teachers are directed to explain Jim Crow laws to students at different points in their course of study as the “systematic practice of discriminating against and segregation of black people.” But a teacher might follow the direction and explain the meaning of legalized segregation without really going into the terror inflicted on black people to enforce unjust policies and wicked traditions.

Lynching is mentioned in the Washington, D.C., history curriculum as a possible theme that  content teachers can use to support the students’ learning goals in a unit on the “Gilded Age and Progressivism.” Specifically, the 11th-grade U.S. History Scope and Sequence asks teachers to explain the impact of “the end of reconstruction on African Americans (i.e., the rise of Jim Crow laws, lynching, the First Great Migration).” The mention of lynching is a signal of encouragement for introducing content on the subject, but its placement in a parenthetical gives teachers enough latitude to not address it. I suspect the D.C. example to be the extent to which most states teach about lynching.

It’s unpleasant to face our shameful past, especially when we have yet to properly atone for it. We didn’t have a truth and reconciliation commission as South Africa did when that country emerged from its era of state-sanctioned apartheid, though the crimes committed here were just as brutal and systematic. We don’t confess our historic sins to our schoolchildren so that they may understand their roots, the way German schools do with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Heck, we have yet to atone for our genocide of the Native Americans, and we’ve had centuries to fix that. Our willful amnesia comes from our refusal to name American terrorism, both past and present. We shouldn’t be surprised that it continues today, though it goes by other names.

Related: Segregation incarnated in brick and mortar

In March of 1981, 19-year-old Michael Donald was found hanging from a tree in Mobile, Alabama. Two members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted of abducting, torturing, murdering and hanging Donald from a tree. It is regularly cited as the last lynching in the U.S. But what are we to make of the 2017 murder of Philando Castile by St. Anthony, Minn., police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who before his killing was pulled over by police an estimated 46 times? Would he have been killed, and stopped all those times, if he had not been black? What is that if not a racist past bleeding into the present?

We should call out despicable acts like the Austin bombings, in which Mark Anthony Conditt, a 23-year-old white man, initially mailed bombs in black areas of the city that killed two people, injured five others and spread fear all over the region. The official account from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that the suspect at the time had no ties to terrorism. In the aftermath of his suicide, Austin police aren’t calling Conditt a terrorist either. “If a Muslim man planted bombs in predominantly white neighborhoods before blowing himself up, you could bet that the White House and various media outlets would label him a terrorist,” wrote Guardian columnist Daniel José Camacho. He’s right. If we came to grips with the historic terror inflicted by white people, mainly men, on thousands of black people, we might have more easily recognized the Austin bombings for what they were — an attempt to terrorize a people — just as we might see the pattern of murders of numerous unarmed black men at the hands of the police on that continuum.

This country needs the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Lynching is an open wound made fresh by the extrajudicial killings that occur seemingly every day. The trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next can end if we give ourselves the space to heal, and teach our students that terror has been a central feature of our democracy. The memorial is necessary, but alone it’s insufficient. Lynching is a significant part of U.S. history that should be taught and learned in schools — if not for the sake of the dead, then to end our willful ignorance for the sake of the living.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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